Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nordnatur Day 2: In which I am happy to be a geologist in Iceland

In the morning, we loaded up all of our stuff into the van and the trailer on the back and headed off to see some of the sights around Lake Mývatn, which pretty much all Icelanders seem to think is a place everyone must see if they come to northern Iceland. The geologist in me wholeheartedly agrees – there’s no other place in the world quite like it. Hreiðar joked that I should give a lecture on the geology of the region, and I almost wish I had done it, because I didn’t think any of the other lectures during the trip quite fully explained the uniqueness of Iceland’s position as a hot spot (presumed, though debatably, to be caused by a plume of hot magma rising from the core-mantle boundary, much like at Hawaii and Yellowstone) situated on the mid-Atlantic ridge. Since Lake Mývatn is situated in the active spreading zone, there are a lot of fabulous and nearly other-worldly volcanic features in the area, and even if we didn’t talk about plate tectonics, we did get to see a lot of incredible places. A few of them I had seen with the geology trip last year, but absolutely still worth seeing again, both because they’re incredible places and because my perspective is different now and I noticed more after having been in Iceland for two months.

We stopped first at Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods – so named because, as the story goes, upon returning from the Althing where Iceland officially adopted Christianity a thousand years ago, the local chieftain of the region threw all his statues of pagan gods into the waterfall.

The on to the Námafjall geothermal area, with lots of fumaroles and bubbling mudpots. No matter how many times I see places like this, the strangeness of escaping gases and water heated by magma below my feet never ceases to astound me.


Icelanders have managed to take advantage of their unique geologic landscape by producing a large amount of their energy by using geothermally-heated water. The power plant at Krafla, the volcanic vent next to Lake Mývatn, was the first geothermal power plant in the country, beginning electricity production in 1978.

The smoke rising up in front of the mountain is from a production well, where basically they drill for steam, and to the right, you can see the very tip of the most recent lava flow from Krafla, erupted in the Krafla fires of 1975-1985.

The steam is then piped all across the area into the separator station, where the steam is filtered before being piped to the turbines. The steam pipes all across the landscape also have a strangely other-worldly look, like something out of a futuristic dystopian fantasy, although strangely juxtaposed with the sheep that were grazing in the grassy areas next to the tephra hills.

And then after the steam has been used to power the turbines and produce electricity, it is cooled in this series of giant cooling towers before being released.

This ability to produce large amounts of energy is basically Iceland’s other major natural resource in addition to the fisheries. Raw bauxite is shipped to Iceland from all over the world – even as far as Australia – to be smelted into aluminium using the cheaply available energy. According to Landsvirkjun, the company that operates the Krafla power plant (owned jointly by the Icelandic State, City of Reykjavik, and Town of Akureyri), 70% of electricity consumption in Iceland goes to power-intensive industrial development. Since 1999, Iceland has had the highest per capita electricity consumption in the world (a dubious distinction), though the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity production is far lower than in any other western nation, which the company uses to tout its geothermal power production as “an important contribution to the battle against the greenhouse effect.” Whether this type of industrial development is good for the country seems to be a rather common topic of debate, and I’m wary of saying that shipping aluminium around the world to be smelted in Iceland is a particularly environmentally-sound option, but it certainly is a unique resource.


We then headed to the Mývatn Naturebath, where we went swimming in a “natural spa” of warm, mineral-rich water similar to the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik. I’m unconvinced that there is any health benefit to this kind of thing, but it was certainly relaxing to swim in the warm water (and after a rather cold and rainy morning, too) and the view out over the lava fields and the lake was pretty spectacular.

The view out over the nature bath, with Hverfell (the explosion crater Adam and I climbed) visible in the distance:

And me in the water, with some crazy Finns:


Last stop before we headed back to the coast to learn more about more oceanic things, we went to Dimmuborgir, an area of strange lava formations left behind when a former lava lake drained before it had fully solidified. Apparently the Yule Lads, the sons of two vicious trolls who live in the Mývatn area who are part of the Christmas traditions here (children leave shoes in the windowsill for the thirteen days before Christmas and each day a different Yule Lad comes to leave presents for well-behaved children and raw potatoes for misbehaving children), also live in Dimmuborgir, although I didn’t spot any of them while we were walking around.

The most famous of the formations is Kirkja, the church, a basalt archway.

And just as we were leaving, the rain cleared up and left us a very picturesque rainbow over the lava fields.

Nordnatur Day 1: In which I meet the group and pick a lot of blueberries

The group from the Nordnatur course arrived from Finland on Friday, and I met everyone on Saturday morning at the University of Akureyri (shlepping all my stuff, of course, since I officially moved out of my room when I left to join them). We spent the morning hearing some background about the oceanography of Iceland from Steingrímur Jónsson, who is one of the few (he said three) oceanographers in the country. It continually astounds me that there could really be so few oceanographers in Iceland – there are plenty of fisheries biologists, and everyone seems to know that studying the oceans is important, but apparently everyone wants to study the fish and nobody wants to study the water. As an intended future oceanographer (or at least as far as I know right now), I can’t quite understand.

We then headed off for the afternoon to the Akureyri to relax, which meant buying my first Icelandic beer at a café in town and then going swimming – a good way for me to start to get to know everyone.


After we were all clean and dry, we headed off to Hreiðar’s summerhouse in the valley of Barkáradalur about an hour outside Akureyri.

The last wooden bridge to the house is too rickety to cross with a full 14-passenger van, so we walked the last bit of the way to the house.

And here’s the house itself:

The valley is known as the home of Iceland’s most famous ghost, the Hidden People*, and lots of sheep and wild blueberries. I didn’t see any ghosts or hidden people, but I did see some sheep and a lot of blueberries.

A whole crew of us went out blueberry-picking out on the slope above the house, collecting as many as we could before it started to get cold and our fingers got numb.

You can eat the black berries too, but the seeds are bitter, and there were plenty of blueberries to last us not just that night but the next couple days too.

Here are Raisa, Teemo, and Laura, three of the Finns, picking berries against the backdrop of the mountains:

And container (an old ice cream container) filled with all the blueberries I didn’t eat while picking:

We made a barbeque dinner outside the house – roasted lamb, with salmon for me and the other non-meat-eater, along with baked potatoes and onions (I’d never seen onions baked like that before) and fresh-picked wild blueberries with sugar and cream for desert. Although I didn’t try it, the lamb was very popular. It seemed to bring out some of Esko’s caveman instincts as he gnawed on his bone....

And, though we didn’t cook it ourselves, Hreiðar brought out a salted sheep’s head so everyone could try “strange Icelandic food.”

Of course, the group finished it completely, even down to the eyes (and then, of course, asked whether Iceland has any real strange food…I’m not sure whether anyone actually got a hold of hakarl, the shark that has to rot to rid it of a toxin before being safe to eat and smells strongly of ammonia, but they didn’t think the minke whale meat was that strange either…crazy Nordic people). Some of them expected me to be grossed out by it (I guess vegetarians are assumed to find meat disgusting?) but I mostly find it ingenious that the Icelanders found ways to use all parts of their animals. Being so poor for most of the country’s history, they really had little choice.


*I first heard the story of the Hidden People (also known as elves) when I was in Iceland with the 5-college geology group last year, and like it too much to not retell it here:
When the world was young and Adam and Eve’s family was still the only family on earth, God would occasionally come to visit. This was, of course, a special occasion and the family was expected to look their best, freshly washed and wearing their nicest clothes. This was quite a task, for there were many children (they had, after all, been charged with population the whole world) and it generally fell to Eve to make sure they were all washed and presentable when God arrived. On one of these visits, try as she might, Eve wasn’t able to get the children ready in time and some were still in the bath when God arrived.
Eve hurried the rest outside and hoped that God wouldn’t notice that the rest were absent, telling them to stay inside where they were. But, being an omniscient God of course, the missing children did not go unnoticed. “Where are your other children?” God asked her.
“What other children?” Eve asked, panicking. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
God was not pleased with Eve’s dishonesty and thought to punish her, but not harshly, as – being omniscient and all – God knew that she had not meant any harm. “I know,” God said, “that the rest of your children are still in the bath, and that you meant to hide them from me. As you have tried to keep them hidden, so now shall they and all their descendents be hidden from the world.”
And so the children of Adam and Eve who had been hidden in the bath when God came to visit and all their children and children’s children have been hidden from the rest of the world, only to be seen when they choose to show themselves.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

From North to South

In the past week and a half, I’ve been on seven different boats, caught twenty fish myself (though seen others catch many many more), slept in six different towns, and been interviewed on one Icelandic television station. Most of this was while traveling with a group of Nordic students from the first-ever version of a Nordnatur intensive course on monitoring aquatic ecosystems, where I was officially labeled as Hreiðar’s “personal assistant,” which was basically an excuse for allowing me to come along. There were thirteen students in all, nine from Finland, two from Denmark, one from Norway, and one from Iceland – plus four Finnish teachers who came along to help for part of the time (i.e. see cool stuff in Iceland), a German girl doing an internship in marine biotechnology at the University of Akureyri who joined the group when I did, and me. Most of the students are studying some sort of fisheries science at their home university (though also a few in forestry and landscape design and other less directly-relevant subjects), which meant that they were a great source of information about invasive species in Norway and eutrophication in the Baltic Sea and fisheries regulations in Finland and other subjects I never would have had a chance to learn about otherwise. Plus, of course, it was nice to have some traveling companions and they turned out to be generally an interesting and fun group of people to spend time with.

I took a huge number of pictures, the first group of which are already online here, with more still to come. And, of course, I’ll be posting some chronicles of my adventures here soon. For now though, after a fourteen-hour trip from the north, I have made my way to Vestmanneyjar – a town of about 5000 people on the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands (also called Vestmanneyjar in Icelandic) in southwest Iceland. The island is most famous for the eruption in 1973 that forced the entire town to evacuate and almost filled in the harbor with lava before some combination of natural forces and a crew spraying the flowing lava with high-pressure water hoses made it stop. Sailing into town last night in the dark, the combination of the recent lava and cliffs of misty cliffs of welded tuff made the island seem mysterious and certainly like no place I’ve ever seen before.

More updates and pictures coming soon with stories about my final travels in northern Iceland and my next adventures here in Vestmanneyjar.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Great Fish Day

Last weekend was the sixth annual Great Fish Day (Fiskidagurinn mikli in Icelandic) celebration in Dalvík and since it was both a festival all about fish and just an hour north up the fjord, obviously I had to go. The town of Dalvík only has about 2000 residents, but each year since they began holding this festival on the second weekend in August, thousands have flocked to the town both from elsewhere in Iceland and from outside the country, to sample fish cooked in every possible way, all entirely for free. Last year, 30,000 people came for the festival and this year they estimate that it was the largest attendance yet, at 35,000.

Pretty much every Icelander I’ve talked to makes the same comment when I mention this festival: “When they started this, everyone thought they were crazy to give out everything for free.” But it provides fabulous publicity for a town that is based mainly on fishing and fish processing, and most of the fish and other ingredients and the entertainment for the festival is donated by local companies, both fishing companies and other businesses in the area. Obviously it’s worked out, because the festival has gotten bigger every year, but it certainly is an impressive feat for such a small town.

When Adam and I got to Dalvík on Friday afternoon, the place was already packed with elaborate tent complexes and campers on what seemed like every small piece of grass in the area spreading out from the campground. After wandering around for about twenty minutes trying to figure out where we should pay to set up our tent, we found the swimming pool office (which doubles as the campground registration), where they told us that camping – like everything else – was free for the weekend. Turns out the town had basically turned all the large grassy areas into temporary campgrounds, and there were tents everywhere, even lining residential streets.

We set up our camp at the edge of town next to the swimming pool, and set off towards the center of town where the festival was officially being inaugurated before sending everyone off for the festival’s kick-off evening event – Fiskisupukvoldid mikla. After the official opening ceremony, forty or so homes throughout the town opened their homes to the festival guests and served everyone homemade fish soup. We walked through pretty much the whole town (it’s a small town) to see all the decorations and the crowds and waited in a number of lines to try some of the fish soups, which were all different though also all excellent.

It felt a bit like an odd version of Halloween: all the homes in town were decorated with fishing-themed items, from nets to scarecrow-style fishermen made by stuffing foul weather gear to all kinds of colorful fish, often made by children. Throngs of people roamed the streets going from house to house, first waiting in line for their turn to be served a steaming bowl of soup and sign their name in the guestbook (each house had a book for people to sign so they would know how many people had come and where they were from) and then milling about talking and eating and in a number of places listening to musical entertainment, which ranged from acoustic guitars and accordions to a performance of such party classics as the limbo (performed in Icelandic with the instrumental version as a recording in the background) in a style that would have begged the question “do you do bar mitzvahs?” anywhere but Iceland.

Here are some samples of the home decorations:


Local residents serving guests from giant pots of soup:


And lots and lots of people waiting for and enjoying their soup:


Official festivities on Friday night ended at 11pm and began again at 11 the next morning. There were barbeques and booths set up along the dock and the street perpendicular to it, all with different kinds of fish, from a giant grill (I think this is the one that is noted as the longest barbeque in Iceland) for fish burgers to fried fish balls to grilled cod and Arctic char to shrimp salad to a Nigerian stand (there are a number of Nigerian fish companies involved, since Iceland sells a lot of fish to Nigeria) with dried fish (harðfiskur) and a number of Icelanders wearing Nigerian costumes. In addition to the free food, though, there was also a wide variety of entertainment, including rotating bands at the main bandstand (a few of which performed American country songs, which temporarily produced an aura around the festival that reminded me strangely of Montana), horse rides and a giant blow-up play area for the children, a clown troop that both performed together and sent members off into the crowd to hand out candy, facepainting, boat rides, and an educational display showing different species of fish and other marine life.

Here’s the assembly line at the fish burger grill (“sex” means six in Icelandic, but I’m pretty sure the pun on their shirts here is entirely intended even though I don’t get the joke):

And a very hungry Adam with his burger, modeling both the giant open mouth of a hungry codfish and the very lovely hat I knit while at sea:

The Nigerian stand complete with a display of drying fish hanging overhead, showing how the harðfiskur is made:

And, in case you doubted that people had gotten into the spirit of celebrating fish, look what this girl chose to have painted on her face:

We took a ride on the Saefari, the ferry that normally sails from Dalvik to Grimsey, which gave us a chance to look back on the town and the festival from a little farther off.

This is the Saefari (certainly recognizable from a distance – I don’t know the reason for the bright coloring):

Here’s Dalvik, mid-festival:

And here’s the crowd on the dock – quite impressive:


Even after the festival officially ended at 5:00, though, the town and the campgrounds stayed crowded. As it got dark, crowds collected at the harbor again for a performance by a local band of songs to which pretty much everyone knew the words and sang along, which was followed by an impressive fireworks display.

Adam and I had been doubting the quality of Icelandic fireworks displays as people set off a few fireworks of their own from their houses, but I’m convinced these were the best fireworks I’ve seen in quite a few years. So no problem that I missed the 4th of July in America – I got the Great Fish Day instead.


On Sunday, the crowds finally began to thin out, and Adam and I spent the afternoon at the town swimming pool, which is particularly nice, and provided an excellent venue for relaxing and playing cards, in addition to some sliding and swimming and getting warm in the hot tubs.


So there ends the story of my latest real adventures. My sore throat has finally gone away, Adam is back in the US, I finally got a chance to read the last Harry Potter, and tomorrow morning I’m leaving the student guesthouse which has been my home here in Akureyri. I’ll be spending the next ten days going along with group of Nordic students taking a Nordnatur course on monitoring aquatic ecosystems, thanks to Hreiðar, who is in charge of the part of the course in Iceland and thought I would enjoy going along and might be able to lend an extra hand at times. We’ll be going some interesting places and meeting interesting people, and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot both from getting the chance to see places I wouldn’t otherwise and from the chance to talk with experts while we’re there – the concept reminds me of a Williams-Mystic field seminar. You can follow the schedule here, although I think the plans are pretty flexible both to account for the weather and this being the first time they run the course. And then after the students leave, I’ll be heading south to Vestmanneyjar for my last few weeks in Iceland. Not sure how much I’ll have Internet access, but I’ll check in when I can.

From Explosion Crater to Emergency Room

Yes, part of my travels over the past two weeks did indeed include going to the Akureyri Hospital’s emergency room the day after hiking up a giant explosion crater, but the two weren’t actually related. And I’m fine now, so no worries – but you’ll have to read on for the rest of the story.

My apologies, also, for what has turned out to be yet another long break between posts here. I had intended to write some sort of summing-up reflections about the shrimp survey, but the combination of Adam’s visit and a nasty sore throat provided hefty distractions and reflections what I’ve learned about fisheries management will have to wait (not that I have any answers). Despite my rather inconvenient sore throat, though, Adam and I managed to have some adventures and non-adventures in northern Iceland.

Our first intended destination was to cross Eyjafjörður at the Osholmar nature area just south of the Akureyri airport. I’d been there just before leaving for the shrimp survey, but wanted to go back, and it seemed like an ideal journey to explore in the Akureyri area. Unfortunately, the weather was pretty dreary – windy and rainy – and after it started raining on us and we took shelter at the town skating rink, where we glanced in on some kids practicing figure skating (having never made it around a rink without falling, I was impressed) and then huddled outside with our lunch before deciding to give up the initial attempt. Instead of getting more cold and wet, we headed back to the center of town and got some hot chocolate and played cards in a café and then stopped at the Akureyri swimming pool on the way back.

Now swimming might not seem like the kind of thing one does on a cold, rainy day, but swimming pools in Iceland are a little different from the kind of swimming pools one finds in the United States. Due to the readily-available hot water, maintaining a heated pool is relatively inexpensive, so pretty much every town in Iceland has a heated swimming pool, which means not just a normal pool for swimming laps but also multiple temperatures of hot tubs, water slides, steam baths, and saunas. You can read more about Iceland’s thermal swimming pools here. Since Akureyri is such a large town, at least by Iceland’s standards, the swimming pool is particularly fancy even for Iceland, and made a good place to stop and relax – our first in a sampling of a few of northern Iceland’s swimming pools. Here’s Adam on the smaller of the two slides:

The next day, though, we made a second attempt to cross the fjord and this time succeeded. It was still pretty cold, mostly because there was a strong wind blowing down the fjord towards us. We joked about measuring the wind on the Beaufort scale normally used for measuring wind forces at sea, since we actually had trouble walking into the wind – which, if you look it up, means “near gale” force winds. I didn’t take any pictures because I forgot to bring gloves and my hands were far happier safely tucked away than with my camera, but here’s one from the first time I crossed, looking toward the end of the fjord and the mountains to the south:

And another of a girl feeding the horses that are both kept and often ridden in the area (the girl wasn’t there when we went back, but there were still a lot of horses).

The initial plan for the rest of the week was: go to Lake Mývatn, one of the largest lakes in Iceland and a place pretty much Icelander had told me I should go while in the north, come back to Akureyri for day, take a ferry to the island of Grímsey, which lies on the Arctic Circle and is the most northerly inhabited place in Iceland, and stay for two days before coming back to Dalvik, a town half-way up the fjord and also where the Grímsey ferry sails from, for the Great Fish Day festival. This was, perhaps, a rather over-ambitious plan and, of course, things did not work out quite like that.

We postponed leaving for Lake Mývatn for a day because I woke up the morning we were planning to leave feeling pretty miserable, but after a rather unsuccessful day of trying to rest the cold away, we decided to go anyway. Despite feeling sick, I liked Lake Mývatn: we camped right next to the lake, where we got to watch people going out on row boats and the slow sunset over the water and were woken up in the morning by rather loud birds.

This was the view of the sunset (at about 10pm, of course) looking out from our tent:

And this was the view in daylight (that’s our tent, with Adam and drying clothes outside):

The area looks very unlike any lake I’ve seen before – it’s along the zone of Iceland’s most recent volcanic activity (the lava flows from Krafla, which erupted from 1975-1984, are visible just to the north), which means that the lake is situated on a base of basalt flows and is surrounded by volcanoes, craters, and odd basalt formations from old lava flows. We hiked a few kilometres south to Hverfell, a huge tephra (fancy geology word for stuff that exploded out of a volcano…I did spend the past four years studying geology, you know) explosion crater – 1000 meters in diameter and 140 meters deep. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from the picture, but we could tell it was pretty darn big from quite a ways away as we walked towards it:

And here’s Adam on the rim, looking down into the crater. Yup, it was pretty exciting to make it all the way up.

You can also see (if you click to see the larger version of the picture) that lots of visitors seem to have decided to leave their mark on the crater in a rather impressive display of rock graffiti on the part of the cone that collapsed in a landslide after the eruption – lots of country names, some names, and some words we couldn’t quite decipher all written out on the center of the crater. Amusing, although it does slightly mar the wonder of, “wow, this whole thing exploded!”

Walking around the rim also provided an impressive view of the surrounding area.

Looking out over Lake Mývatn, where you can actually see some of the smaller craters emerging from the lake as small islands:

Looking to the south, the green area is an old lava lake called Dimmuborgir with strange formations with lava tubes and arches, and a variety of volcano types including the classic flat-topped volcano on the left, which formed by erupting underneath a glacier:

And looking back north across the crater, you can see the smoke and the lava fields around Krafla:

We also got a chance to see some of Reykjahlíð, the small town we were staying in by the lake. Most people who visit Lake Mývatn go to the Mývatn Nature Baths, but we opted to go to the local swimming pool. Despite Reykjahlíð only having 300 inhabitants, it has a swimming pool with two hot tubs and a sauna (my first time in a sauna since I was in Finland nine years ago). The pool was mostly empty – it was a bank holiday and I suspect most people in town had gone elsewhere to celebrate – but we stayed for a while and watched an Icelandic baby and his father explore the pool together and played cards and listened to the Icelandic radio, which I continue to be amused by with its mixture of a whole range American music styles along with Icelandic songs.

After we got back to the tent from swimming, though, we decided that I needed to see a doctor when we returned to Akureyri the next day because my sore throat was getting increasingly icky (Adam looked in my throat using my headlamp as a light), mostly to see whether I had a recurrence of the strep throat I’d had at the beginning of the summer and if so, get a prescription for antibiotics. So the next morning, we packed up and went back to Akureyri and headed to the hospital.

I found going to the emergency room for a sore throat a particularly strange experience, not so much because I was going to a hospital in a foreign country as because, thanks to growing up with two doctors, I’ve never gone to the emergency room for basic medical needs. Wasn’t too difficult though – they even had a special form for non-Icelanders for me to fill out, the doctor was very helpful (even though the rapid strep test came back negative, he prescribed me erythromycin just in case and gave me directions to the pharmacy to pick it up the next morning), and even though I don’t get the incredibly low prices that Icelanders pay for health care (85% government funded) it was still only about $100 for the visit.

This did mean that rather than going to Grimsey the next morning, we spent the next few days in Akureyri. We had a good time, though – we took advantage of the time to relax and cook and play a lot of card games. Among the excitements of spending time in Akureyri were the discovery that cookie dough is a fabulous food that requires no oven if you have no intention of actually making cookies (we realized that the dough tasted better than the cookies), that the readily-available Mexican-style food in Iceland (tortilla chips, salsa, etc.) are produced – of all unlikely places – in the Netherlands, and that it is fairly easy to discover new card games by looking them up online. We played an incredible number of card games: in addition to games we already knew, including experimenting with variations on the rules of Casino, we also learned German Whist (which turns out to be British), Cuarenta (the national card game of Ecuador), and Bela/Clobyosh (apparently both a Yiddish and a Scottish card game…odd, but cool). A very international adventure in card playing, all from northern Iceland! I include the rules here as recommendation that you learn to play these games so you can play with me when I next see you, as it’s hard to keep up my card game skills on my own and these are an excellent set of games.

Anyway, that takes us to the end of last week and the end of the worst of my feeling sick, when we set off for Dalvik to join in the celebrations of the Great Fish Day, which will be coming soon in another post. All in all, though, being sick turned out to be not all that bad, despite the inconvenience and few days of feeling rather miserable. Hlynur told me I should learn the Icelandic phrase for “it’ll work out,” which of course I’ve now forgotten in Icelandic, but I think he was right.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Silver of the Sea

Half way through the survey, on Monday the 23rd, we stopped to drop off the first week’s worth of shrimp at Siglufjörður, a town in northern Iceland right at the tip of Eyjafjörður.

It’s a pretty small town now, with a population of 1,400, but used to be the fifth-largest in Iceland and has a fascinating and rather sad fishing history that provides an example of what overfishing can do to a town. In the beginning of the twentieth century, salted herring became one of the staples of Iceland’s economic growth – accounting for about 25% of Iceland’s total exports, and sometimes even higher. The first herring processing plant in Iceland was built in Siglufjörður in 1911, and it became a major center of fish processing, drawing thousands of workers from the countryside every summer until the herring fishery collapsed in the 1960s.

I had been interested in visiting the town even before the survey, both because it proudly advertises its history as a major center of the twentieth century herring fishery – they have an award-winning Herring Era Museum and even hold a Herring Era Festival during the first weekend in August where they demonstrate the old methods of herring processing – and because the town has already felt the ramifications of the cod quota cut. Even though Siglufjörður is not a cod fishing town, it has a shrimp processing plant owned by a company that also owns a share in the cod quota, and after the announcement of the cod quota cut, the company (called Rammi, after the Norwegian Viking Thormódur Rammi, the earliest recorded settler of the area) announced that it would be closing the shrimp plant in Siglufjörður and laying off all the workers (see article here). It wasn’t just the cod quota cut of course that forced the company to close the plant – the shrimp fishery in Iceland has been doing very poorly the past few years, and its value has depreciated as a combination of Europe’s preference for shrimp from Canada over shrimp from Iceland and the strength of the Icelandic króna, which is poor for exports. It goes to show how the cod fishery is interconnected with other aspects of life in Iceland – it’s nearly impossible to study cod without learning about a whole variety of other factors from shrimp fishing to tourism.

So before we left in the morning on Tuesday, I went to the Herring Era Museum to learn about the town’s history and about herring. I had seen my first herring in the trawls in the two days before we got to Siglufjörður, and one of the deckhands had told me that the herring (síld in Icelandic) was known as the silver of the sea. Possibly it got the name because it’s a beautiful fish – dark blue on top and shiny silver underneath – but I suspect it also has something to do with how profitable herring fishing was in the early twentieth century. The museum even goes so far as to say that the herring fishery was key to enabling Iceland to gain its independence from Denmark in 1944 by ensuring that the country could be economically independent.

Here's what herring actually look like, fresh from our trawl net:


While the herring fishery was in full swing from 1911 to the 1950s, and particularly after the 1930s when Icelanders gained ownership of the herring reduction factories from the Norwegians who first opened them, building the town as one of Iceland’s major ports and a center of economic activity, with a population almost three times the size of the town today.

Herring is a pelagic fish that tends to shoal, or school together in dense packs of fish, which made it easy to catch whole shoals of fish in Danish seine nets. Early methods of fishing from wooden dorries was later supplanted with the advent of large steel vessels that used acoustic fish-finding technology, but the concept of fishing out whole shoals of fish remained the same.

The herring catch was used in a variety of ways – some was salted an exported as food, while some was processed in herring reduction plants. To salt the fish, workers would come from all over the countryside to help with the salting in the summer months. These were mostly young girls, known as herring girls, who layered the fish with salt inside barrels to prepare them for export. The joke that describes the festive atmosphere of life in the months that the girls were in town goes that a woman was asked if she was ever married, and she replied, “No, but I was in Siglufjörður in 1963.” Apparently the collapse of the fishery in 1968 was felt as a particular blow among teenage boys who never had a chance to benefit from that aspect of the herring fishery.

The main portion of the museum is housed in the old “Roaldsbrakki,” which while in use contained part of the salting line where the herring was processed, the office where workers were paid weekly, and workers’ quarters for up to fifty employees, mostly women. The museum shows some of the rooms where the herring girls lived while in town – I don’t know whether the presentation of the girls’ belongings in the museum is entirely authentic, but I liked this room in the attic next to the room with the bunks, which showed nylon stockings hanging to dry alongside a batch of saltfish.

One of the buildings in the museum is a recreation of the Grána fish meal and oil factory, where salted herring not sold as food was cooked, mashed, separated, dried, and packaged for export.

The oil extracted from the fish was used for a whole variety of purposed from paint to cosmetics and soap to margarine. The fish meal remaining was then dried and ground before being packaged into 50 and 100kg bags to use for animal fodder in Europe and North America.

What struck me most about the way the history was presented was how proud the town remains of its involvement with the herring fishery – the museum mentions that after the herring collapse, the town turned to cod, capelin, and shrimp, but nothing, they said, could replace herring. It reminds me a lot of the way towns in Newfoundland are described after the cod collapse – even when they move on, they don’t lose their allegiance to their history. Siglufjörður at least seems to have made the best of its situation, using its history to develop itself as a tourist destination with an excellent museum and festivals that draw people from all over the country. Maybe this is the right approach to a collapsed fishery, maintaining the traditions and history as best as possible but for tourism rather than for actual profit through the fishery. It’s hard to tell what will happen in Siglufjörður if fishing and fish processing continue to diminish, but it provides a telling example of what might happen in other fishing towns in Iceland if cod and other fishing stocks were to collapse.